First it starts with sneezing and a running nose. Then comes the cough, the congestion and watery eyes — and maybe even some chills thrown in for good measure.
Yep, you’ve got a cold. Again.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that most of us suffer through two or three colds a year — and we do suffer because there’s no singular medication or vaccination that can cure the common cold.
Why isn’t there a cure for the common cold?
The “common cold” is more of an umbrella term for a large swath of viruses that all cause the same symptoms, but differ in how they affect the body. Rhinovirus causes the most cases — about 75 percent of colds — with the remainder split into side other viruses: coronavirus, influenza, parainfluenza virus, adenovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and metapneumovirus.
If that wasn’t enough, each of the seven viruses have sub viruses (known as serotypes), bringing the total number number of viruses that cause the common cold to somewhere around 200. So, any vaccination against the common cold would have to “somehow stuff 100 different strains into one shot,” Thomas Smith of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston told Business Insider.
These viruses change all the time, meaning that something that works to cure the common cold this year probably won’t work next year.
“There are usually 20-30 different types of rhinovirus circulating each season in one geographic area,” Yury A. Bochkov, an associate scientist in the department of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, told Business Insider, adding that only about 10 percent will reappear in the same area the next year.
And, unlike the flu, the common cold isn’t deadly, meaning that any blanket treatment would have to have few side effects to make it past the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines. “It really had to be nearly as safe as water for approval for the general public,” Smith told BI.
But it just might happen.
Research published earlier this year in the journal Nature Communications said that new antiviral drugs that fight against the common cold could be designed within the next 10 years.
For the research, scientists looked at the genetic material of human parechovirus, a virus that is similar to the common cold. They then used mathematical modeling and other research to find that the virus relies on a “hidden code” to replicate across its genome to grow efficiently.
“The coding works like the cogwheels in a Swiss watch. We now need a drug that has the same effect as pouring sand into the watch; every part of the viral mechanism could be disabled,” Professor Peter Stockley at the University of Leeds told CNN.
A former senior staff scientist at MIT Lincoln Laboratory is also working on an immunization that could protect against several viruses. Todd Rider first announced DRACO in 2011, a compound, he says, that’s designed to “treat or prevent infections by a broad spectrum of viruses, just as existing antibiotics can treat or prevent infections by a broad spectrum of bacteria.”
Ryder is crowdfunding to continue testing and it could be used in humans “within a decade or perhaps sooner” if all goes well.
“For the common cold in particular, DRACO was shown in human cells to be effective against all four rhinovirus strains tested,” Rider told BI, adding that it showed the ability “to completely eliminate rhinoviruses without harming uninfected cells.”
How to prevent the common cold
It’s pretty much impossible to avoid coming into contact with a virus that causes a cold — especially if you commute on public transportation or work in a building with other people. So, your best bet is to try and limit your exposure to the germs by washing your hands frequently, getting plenty of sleep and avoiding touching surfaces that the virus can thrive on, like bathroom door handles and utensils.
And stop smoking: A 2008 study by researchers at Yale found that smoking exaggerates a smoker’s response to viral infections, leading to additional inflammation and tissue damage.